Sunday, April 22, 2012

Navigating the grocery aisle: 6 easy steps to eating better

Nutrition labels, ingredients, packaging, GMO's, BPA's, high fructose corn syrup, yellow lake #5, what does it all mean?

Making the transition from ignorant bliss to a health conscious consumer can be intimidating. You may know nothing more than the simple fact that you want to eat better. So where do you start?

Follow these 6 steps over the next 6 months to gain a better understanding of food, lose weight without counting calories and regain control of your physical and mental health. 

Step 1: Decoding Ingredients

You may think you know what you are eating but you are in for a not so pleasant surprise when you begin understanding the ingredients list. If the product has a long ingredients list or anything you're not sure on how to pronounce, avoid it. Look for a safer alternative.

Wikipedia offers a full list of food additives, but here is my short dirty list of ingredients to avoid:
  • Food dyes: Red No. 40, Yellow No. 5, Yellow No. 6 and Caramel coloring
  • Artificial sweeteners: Acesulfame-K, Aspartame, Saccharin and Sucralose
  • Hidden trans fats: Partially hydrogenated vegetable oil and hydrogenated vegetable oil
  • Butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA)
  • Propyl gallate
  • Sodium nitrite and sodium nitrate
  • Monosodium glutamate (MSG)
  • Mycoprotein (Quorn)
  • Potassium Bromate
  • TBHQ
Labelwatch and Fooducate are both easy and effective tools that I use on a regular bases to decode ingredients and also as a way of comparing similar products that might be a safer alternative.

Step 2: Understanding Bisphenol-A (BPA)

Something you won't see on the ingredients list is the presence of Bisphenol-A (BPA). BPA is an epoxy used to line food and drink cans. It is a weak endocrine disruptor, which can mimic estrogen and lead to negative health effects.

It is found in canned goods, soda cans and in some plastics labeled with the #7. BPA is being linked to obesity, cancer, diabetes and a number of other health problems. Several companies have promised to convert their can linings into a BPA version, but to this date only a few companies offer canned goods that do not use BPA in their lining. If you are not sure if the product you are buying is BPA free, it is best to find an alternative.

Frozen foods, foods packaged in glass jars and foods packaged in the Tetra Pak cartons (similar to a paper milk carton) are all BPA free.

Step 3: Avoid Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO, GEO, GMF's)

Another thing in your food that won't be listed (as if understanding what you're eating isn't hard enough) is Genetically Modified Organisms; also referred to as Genetically Engineered Organism's or Genetically Modified Foods.

I had heard a lot about GMO's and even sought out information that could explain in an easy to understand way (think Dummies here) what they are and why they're bad, but it wasn't until I read this Mother Earth News article that I grasped the concept and got on board to avoid GMO's.

In short, Monsanto and other devil like companies have found a way to change the DNA of a plant or animal so it will do something in its favor. For a cow this would mean producing more milk, for a plant this could mean producing its own bacteria or pesticide to kill insects, or make it tolerant to withstand being drenched with pesticide without compromising production levels. This may actually sound like a very promising practice but scientists are finding there is evidence that consuming GMO's does indeed have ill effects on health:
Professor emeritus Joe Cummins of the University of Western Ontario told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that “there is evidence that [Bt] will impact directly on human health through damage to the ileum [the final portion of the small intestine, which joins it to the large intestine] … [which] can produce chronic illnesses such as fecal incontinence and/or flu-like upsets of the digestive system.”

Read more:
Products using GMO's are currently not required to be labeled, so it is very difficult to know whether or not you are consuming genetically modified foods. So far, products certified as organic cannot contain GMO's and some companies who are not certified organic have added a label informing their customers that their product is GMO free. If you are not sure if your favorite product is GMO free, contact the company directly for answers.

Step 4: Understanding the word organic

The organic certified label is not meant to trick you into buying a more expensive product nor is it a gimmick for soccer moms to feel better about themselves. This label was meant to meet a basic requirement for what can be considered an ethical choice. Is it abused sometimes? Yes. Is it the best choice all the time? No.

You can count on organic labeling to provide you with the following:
  • A product free from artificial colors and artificial flavors
  • A product free of unnatural preservatives
  • A product free from high fructose corn syrup
  • A non-GMO product
  •  Produced without synthetic pesticides and chemical fertilizers
  • If it is a meat or dairy product that the animal had some access to pasture
I try to adhere to the dirty dozen and clean fifteen list of produce to know when to buy organic and when conventional will do just fine.

When in doubt, choose organic, but the more educated you are you will be able to determine which is a better product whether or not it has been certified as organic.

Keep in mind that just because something is not certified as organic it does not mean that it isn't following organic standards or higher: It is very costly to become certified organic and maintain that certification, many small companies cannot afford or do not wish to go through this process.

Step 5: Know your farmer

Local, in season produce is the most nutritious and often the most affordable. Grass fed beef, pork and free range chicken is not only the best tasting, it is also more nutritious than grain fed livestock.

This step is by far the most ambitious step: taking the initiative to reach out and ask questions to the farmers in your area and making time to shop at the farmers market will seem exotic at first, but empowering and nostalgic in no time.

Most local farmers will not be certified organic, this does not mean they do not produce what you would consider an organic product, it simply means they have not gone through the certification process.

Here are a few questions you can ask your local farmer to learn more about what kind of produce, meat or dairy product they are offering:
  • If you want produce that is free from pesticides ask if they use 'spray' in the crops and also have them specify if anything was applied to the surface of the fruit/vegetable. Let the farmer know you are looking for something that is completely pesticide-free.  
  • If you are looking for 'free range' or 'grass fed' meat or dairy products, ask the farmer how much of the diet of the animal is grass and how much is supplemented as grain. A grass fed or free range animal will have the majority of their diet consist of pasture. Hogs and chickens do require some grain as a supplement, but should be given daily access to grassland or pasture.
  • Most farmers at a market reserve antibiotics for animals that are truly sick and not used as a tool for growth. Have the farmer explain his/her method for when antibiotics are used on their farm. 
  • Understanding the terms Heirloom & Heritage:  "Heirloom and heritage refer to traditional varieties of plants and animals that have been developed by farmers over years of cultivation and breeding.  These varieties, passed down through generations, have unique colors, textures, and flavors that may not be found in factory-farmed products.  Frequently, both heirloom vegetables and heritage breeds of animals are not considered fit for mass production because they produce smaller yields and are more delicate."
    Information provided by: The City of Ann Arbor,, Glossary of Market Terms  

 Step 6: The Colorful Plate

If your plate is always brown, tan and white, you're not getting enough nutrients.

Try to plan your meals to include a wide variety of foods for a balanced diet; the more colorful your plate, the more nutrients you will be taking in. Shoot for the rainbow here people.

If you are having pork loin for dinner make sure you balance the portion size out with some bright orange steamed carrots, a green salad with shredded purple cabbage and creamed cauliflower with garlic on the side.

Eating healthy is not always about counting calories and scanning nutrition labels for fat content. Once you establish a healthy relationship with food and a complete understanding of what you're taking in, your body will settle into its own natural weight and you can feel comfortable in your own skin.


TDB said...

Ever feel like a blog post was written specifically for you?

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